The night that inspired us to embark on one of the biggest changes in our 126-year history
It began that night in March 2013, when the curtains twitched above St Peter’s Square. A petrified-looking cardinal stepped on to the balcony and announced the name of the new Pope: “Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Georgium…”
In the Catholic Herald newsroom we raced down our list of Latin names. The last one read: “GEORGIUM: Bergoglio.” Seconds later, we posted the news on our website: “Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio is Pope Francis I, the first Jesuit to be pope.” We had a record number of visitors to our site that evening.
On the way home, I got stuck at Basingstoke train station. It was around midnight and it would be another hour before my train arrived. The air was biting, so I wandered up and down the platform to keep warm, overflowing with the day’s emotions.
We had a Pope! A gentle, down-to-earth pastor who washed Aids patients’ feet and lived in a tiny apartment. And we’d shared the news of his election instantly with tens of thousands of people across the world.
But beside the joy there was deep disappointment. Earlier that Wednesday, with the cardinals still locked inside the Sistine Chapel, we passed our weekly deadline and were forced to send the paper to the printers. “Cardinals: pray for the new pope” was our bland, precautionary headline. As the sun rose after the election that edition would be dropped off at churches across the country. I imagined the faithful bounding up to the paper, eager to read about the mysterious new Pontiff… and finding nothing.
I cringed when I remembered the opening line of our editorial that week, marking the paper’s 125th anniversary. “In journalism, as in comedy,” it began, “timing is everything.” That would be sure to provoke laughter when it was read in parishes, presbyteries and homes across the country – minus one of the most significant Catholic news stories of the 21st century.
It took eight days – eight painfully long days – before we could finally publish the new Pope’s name in the paper. By then, Francis had already performed a near-miracle: transforming the Church’s popular image. He had charmed the world with his simple “Buonasera!”, paid his hotel bill in person, called for a “poor Church for the poor”, remained living in the Vatican guesthouse and celebrated his inaugural Mass. We had covered all these twists online, of course, sometimes as they were happening. But what good was that for people who relied solely on the paper? Were we really a newspaper anymore?
As we were preparing our first Francis issue, a priest rang. “The Catholic papers have arrived,” I recall him saying. “Don’t you realise we have a new Pope?” He wasn’t being malicious: he just wanted his parishioners to learn about the Pontiff from a reliable source, rather than a secular media already implying that Francis would throw out every doctrine except the Incarnation. The priest was right: we had failed the Catholic community.
Those eight days also brought home just how much technology had reshaped the world in the eight years between the elections of Benedict XVI and Francis. That change was captured beautifully in an image that did the rounds during the conclave. It showed two crowds waiting for the white smoke. In the first, dated 2005, the faithful milled around under street lights, with just one clunky clamshell mobile phone visible. The second, dated 2013, presented a twinkling ocean of iPads, Nokias, iPhones and Motorolas. The message was simple: almost everyone today is online, seemingly all the time.
When our board met shortly after the conclave someone suggested we should become a magazine. I flinched and thought: “No, that’s a bad idea.” The last time we’d considered changing format was in the mid-2000s, when the Independent, the Times and, finally, the Guardian ditched their broadsheet editions. They had made short-term gains, but apparently at considerable expense.
The Guardian, for example, had moved to the sleek Berliner format in 2005 at the cost of £80 million. Its average daily circulation rose at first to 403,297. But by June this year that figure was down to 185,313. The Guardian website, meanwhile, recorded more than 100 million monthly visitors for the first time in March. So merely changing shape clearly wasn’t a sufficient response to the technological revolution. Thanks to the web, a pale teenager holed up in his bedroom could, potentially, scoop the world’s major news organisations. No slimmed-down edition was going to change that.
But a Catholic weekly is obviously different to a secular daily newspaper. Moving to magazine format would give us two advantages: we could present our features more vividly and end our dependency on fast-moving news. News would still be crucial, of course, but it would be served up differently: as a thoughtful reflection on the week’s events. Our website, meanwhile, would post breaking news and comment daily, becoming an essential destination for anyone interested in Catholicism. We could also make the magazine a joy to read online on a desktop or a tablet.
As the idea grew on me, I thought about the paper’s founders. What was their dream when they held the first copies of the Catholic Herald, dated March 16 1888? They were surely hoping that the newspaper (billed as “The Catholic Organ for the Metropolis”) would strengthen the long-suffering Catholic community by providing it with a reliable source of news and comment. Why did they found the Catholic Herald as a broadsheet? Because that was the best way to communicate with the faithful of the day. That remained the case, remarkably, for more than a century. But the broadsheet was a vehicle for the Catholic Herald’s mission, rather than an essential part of its identity.
So the question then became: what is the best means of communicating with Catholics today? What kind of media do 21st-century Catholics need?
I took a week off to create a prototype of the Catholic Herald magazine and was amazed by how smoothly the paper translated into the new format. We showed it to a wide variety of people and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Some who were sceptical about the abstract idea of a magazine were won over once they held a copy in their hands.
This summer the board decided we should make the leap, becoming a magazine and redesigning our website. The beginning of December – at the start of a new liturgical year – seemed the perfect time. Our last edition as a broadsheet newspaper will be dated Friday, November 28, and the first magazine will appear on December 5. The website will be re-launched shortly before that.
I’m already feeling nostalgic about the broadsheet Catholic Herald. I’m looking now at the front page of our October 10 edition. It shows Pope Francis celebrating the opening Mass of the family synod in St Peter’s Basilica. The detail is amazing: you can see the light bouncing off every groove in the baldacchino. Fortunately, photos should be even more striking in the magazine, thanks to better quality paper, though they will, of course, be on a smaller scale.
In fact, the same goes for everything you may love about the paper: you will find it in the magazine, but in a different format. Our editorial line – upholding Church teaching, supporting the Pope – will remain the same. And all our writers will make the transition with us.
There’s a vast amount of information about the Church these days. Francis was the most talked-about person on the web in 2013 and there are more than 340 million results for the term “Catholic” on Google. But how do you separate fact from fiction? And when you have, how do you interpret the facts?
These are not trivial questions in the age of Francis, when people are frantically projecting their desires on to a puzzling and riveting pontificate. Our small but brilliant team will dedicate themselves to telling you what’s really happening in the Catholic Church, both in the magazine and online.
Our new format will take nothing away from the Catholic Herald but will, we hope, provide added value and intellectual stimulation. You can look forward to more magazine-length features and opinion pieces that reflect the richness, colour and variety of Catholic culture at home and abroad. Some very fine writers have agreed to join us as contributors. We are thrilled by the final designs for the magazine and are confident that you will be, too.
We know that the Catholic Herald has always been more than a newspaper; it is a living embodiment of the Catholic community. We believe that our community is entitled to a first-class media. We believe that Britain, too, needs a Catholic media that plays a vigorous role in public debates. And we believe that you, the reader, deserve nothing but the best from us every week. That is why we are becoming a magazine.
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